SEATTLE, Washington — In 2007, Ugandan journalist Andrew Mwenda gave a TED talk in which he asked audience members if they could name a single country that had developed because of the generosity of another. After the audience remained silent, Mwenda explained the strengths and shortcomings of foreign aid and the work done by international NGOs, charities and social enterprises that aim to end global poverty.
According to Mwenda and multiple experts, developmental aid can actually make things worse for communities and those experiencing poverty. Mwenda said this is because the international approach to development is outdated.
The problem of global poverty is an immense challenge, but experts are looking at how the system can be updated to become more progressive, inclusive and efficient. According to the Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR), too many focus on treating the symptoms of poverty rather than the root causes. Mwenda echoed similar sentiments, saying that the treatment of poverty with handouts was not a sustainable solution.
Speaking particularly on efforts to combat poverty in Africa, Mwenda proposed taking a more capitalist approach.
“The challenge facing all those who are interested in Africa is not the challenge of reducing poverty,” Mwenda said. “It should be a challenge of creating wealth.”
By fully understanding how social problems occur, more efficient solutions can be found. Ignoring root causes leads to solutions that only treat symptoms. This can aggravate the problem of global poverty even more, according to the SSIR.
Another part of the problem with the approach to foreign aid is the lack of recognition of power dynamics ingrained in the global social system. These are forces that allow some to become wealthy from the processes that create poverty, such as colonialism, resource extraction and austerity measures. SSIR said recognizing power structures helps aid providers fully understand global poverty and its causes.
SSIR and other sources point out that certain modern-day organizations need poverty in order to function, and that some stakeholders have an interest in maintaining the existence of poverty. Both Mwenda and the documentary ‘Poverty Inc.‘ shone a light on how foreign aid, charity and humanitarian assistance can reduce the purchasing power of communities in impoverished nations.
Carol Lancaster, former dean to the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, has worked in the State Department and with USAID. She expressed that aid donors are partially responsible for weak governance.
Mwenda also pointed out that while the pity-evoking images of poverty in Africa represent a partial reality, they fail to illustrate the full reality of life in African countries, where bustling cities, emerging markets and entrepreneurs are developing economies. Mwenda said those interested in addressing the problem of global poverty should support ventures of entrepreneurs or research institutions in developing countries. This would be more effective than giving out handouts, with which local businesses cannot compete.
The SSIR wrote that in order to change institutional flaws in the development system, people must challenge the “entrenched power and systems” that sustain it. Our global focus should evolve from “eradicating poverty to eradicating poverty creation”, and by acknowledging the unseen forces that drive inequality, new solutions will emerge for a more prosperous future.
– Laura Isaza